A 2005 District law affords Lanier unusually broad authority over the city’s bars and nightclubs, a responsibility generally left to the agency that regulates liquor licenses. Officials say the statute, which allows police to close establishments for days, is meant to be firm. But the chief’s use of that power has renewed discussion of the policy as the city’s growth spurs economic development but also causes worries about crowds and crime.
Lanier denied that she is embarking on a bar-closing binge. She said she uses her authority — which can cost establishments dearly in revenue and unwanted publicity — deliberately. The opinions of others — including elected officials and some in the business community — range from supportive to concerned.
The viewpoints of some key players remain unclear. Neither the city agency that regulates establishments that serve alcoholic beverages nor the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, which represents many of those establishments, responded to repeated requests for comment. Many bar and club operators expressed reluctance to speak frankly for fear of appearing to excuse crime.
Lanier called the latest incident to lead to a club’s closing — the early December sexual assault at Bohemian Caverns — “egregious.”
“We had management and employees who allowed people to drink inside a bar after it had been closed,” Lanier said. “That incident never should have happened.”
A co-owner of the club — located a block from Indulj, a club that Lanier closed after three men were shot outside — threw himself on the mercy of the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board during a December meeting.
“All of us are embarrassed and angry at the employees who violated our trust,” co-owner Omrao Brown said. “I apologize to everyone here.”
The ABC Board allowed Bohemian Caverns to reopen after Brown revised his security plan, ordered guards to stay until the staff had cleaned up after closing and fired a manager and two employees. By then, the club had been closed for six days, and two concerts had been canceled. No arrests have been made.
Lanier attributes the closings to the proliferation of new venues, a result of the growth of the city’s night life. She has targeted only a small fraction of the city’s more than 1,700 licensed establishments, a point her critics concede.
“I don’t always close a bar,” Lanier said. “To me, it has to be very clear that there has been some action that management did or didn’t do that resulted in an injury to the victim.”